I concocted my theory about the end of the Cold War while hiking through a haunted live oak forest on Cumberland Island.
Cumberland is the largest of a handful of still-wild barrier isles along the Georgia coast — a 20-mile-long, mile-wide spit that for millennia has rolled closer to the mainland, as the ocean breeze bathed the island over and over in its own sand.
In the fall of 1975, the new Cumberland Island National Seashore was finally opening to visitors. Roger, my law-flouting Boy Scout leader, figured it might be a ripe venue for wild adventure. A high school buddy of mine and I went with him to find out.
When we got to the mainland town of St. Mary’s, however, a ranger told us we wouldn’t be allowed on the ferry. This particular seashore was something of an experiment for the National Park Service, he explained. It would be managed almost entirely as a wilderness, with primitive camping and a very limited number of visitors.
Park officials had a plan to ease the public into the concept. First off, they wanted to give tours to organized, supportive groups, like the Sierra Club outing club from Atlanta that was waiting at the dock. We got their drift: They didn’t want any potential troublemakers, at least not yet.
But Roger could be intimidating, and he was very loud. He let his objections be known. The ranger who was skippering the little ferry took pity on us. Or maybe he was just scared of the bearded wild man and his scruffy sidekicks. He let us on the boat. When we disembarked, he even loaned us three old bicycles, which had been left on the island by the children of the former caretaker.
The woods on Cumberland were like something we’d never seen. Massive live oaks knotted their gnarly branches overhead. Some of the giant bows sagged under their own weight down to the sandy floor, then turned back up toward the tangle above our heads. Freed from chaotic underbrush by the lack of sunlight, the forest took on the aspect of a brooding, monocultural, city park.
What Cumberland’s woods were to shade, its white dunes were to exposure. The contrast was especially striking during a full moon. On that first night, when it began to dawn on us that Cumberland might be haunted, we emerged from the forest onto a boardwalk toward the beach. The glare off the perfectly white sand was so bright that my eyes hurt. The next evening, we lay on the beach, looking toward the horizon, trying to guess precisely where the moon would rise.
By day, we learned that much of what humans had tried to do on Cumberland hadn’t withstood the test of time. We tagged along with the Sierra Club group for a walking tour of the south end, highlighted by the burned-out hulk of Dungeness, a mansion built around the turn of the 20th century by Thomas Carnegie.
An earlier mansion by the same romantic name once sat on the very same spot, and suffered the same fate. Its builder -- Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene -- died before his mansion was completed (just as Carnegie had passed before his was finished). Like Carnegie’s widow, Mrs. Greene ended up entertaining prominent people in Dungeness.
The mansions burned to the ground about 100 years apart. When we snuck inside the ruins, we saw a safe. It was rusted in place, the massive door ajar, spilling out sand -- as if someone had found time to grab the jewels before the beams collapsed amid the flames of 1959. Spooky, huh?
Cumberland’s elegy for those who tried to tame it goes much further back. It turns out that Greene built Dungeness over a shell mound left by an Indian tribe, the Timucua, that once built a capital there. Wracked by disease and slaughter, the Timucua disappeared within a few generations of their contact with Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer who was searching for a Fountain of Youth.
There was something holy about this place, where human stories seemed to come to their end. It wasn’t only that people couldn’t tame Cumberland; it was as if they were punished for trying.
Around the same time that the Cumberland National Seashore opened, the U.S. Navy began searching for an East Coast home for its new Trident submarine. The Trident finally would take to the oceans in the 1980s -- a 560-foot nuclear-powered beast that carries 24 multiple-warhead nuclear missiles within its hull.
The Navy needed an isolated home for the new subs, with a deepwater channel leading to the sea. And the mainland of Camden County, behind Cumberland, fit the bill. So the Navy began to dredge the sound between the island and its submarine base. Deeper. Deeper. Deeper.
Years later, on one of many return visits, I dreamed up my theory about the Cold War. The Berlin Wall had just fallen. I also had happened to read that a University of Georgia geologist had discovered that dredging for the Trident might irreparably damage Cumberland’s ecology. As the island rolled over itself, migrating toward shore, its sand would slide into the Navy’s trench, causing the landward slide of the island to submerge over time.
Whatever power had overwhelmed human attempts to settle Cumberland, I decided, had overturned the forces that caused the dredging. Peace was Cumberland’s vengeance on the military-industrial complex.
OK. It was just a fun little private fantasy. But Cumberland did seem to me in those days a place that was more powerful than it appeared. In those days, nature seemed as if it could be magical. I wonder if that happens anymore.
MNN homepage photo: Chris Viola/AP